U.S. reaps what it sows in Bolivia

The San Diego Union-Tribune

By Larry Birns and Jessica Bryant
September 22, 2008

The near breakdown of relations between the United States and Bolivia is a perfect example of the baleful consequences of the inherent disrespect the U.S. historically has exhibited toward the region.

Despite La Paz’s and Washington’s ideological differences, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon might have made one more effort to indicate a clear U.S. commitment to the territorial integrity of Bolivia. Vigorous support of President Evo Morales in the face of the opposition’s reckless strategy on the part of Santa Cruz and the eastern region pro-autonomy leaders might have provided a compelling pressure on the secessionists, who were more interested in getting their hands on the region’s hydrocarbon windfall revenues than in avoiding the violence that tragically has claimed many lives.

It is clear that the United States remains blithely removed from the multifaceted developments that are taking place in an increasingly self-directed Latin America. Long distracted by Iraq and its war on terrorism, Washington would be wise to turn its attention to its vital hemispheric interests or risk seeing them washed away. These comprise far more than drugs and terrorism.

If the United States is to play a constructive role there, it must architect a new relationship with the region that can be deemed credible. This means doing more than simply lobbing Parthian shots at what it believes to be recalcitrant leaders.

The White House must be less concerned over the resurgence of socialism than the demise of democracy. If such a repositioning does not soon happen, it may be too late for Washington to develop mutually beneficial policies toward the region. Latin American-led development strategies, such as the Caracas-inspired Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, could appear more relevant to the region’s well-being than any U.S.-imposed free-trade agreements.

Also, the fledgling Union of South American Nations joins the Organization of American States as a multilateral, democratic body capable of facilitating regional integration and conflict resolution. The huge difference is that the United States is not a member of UNASUR. It is precisely this difference that could lead to the OAS being supplanted by the new group.

While the United States may rebuff President Morales’ socialist advocacy, it cannot deny that his reform agenda is supported by a majority of Bolivians. Approved twice in elections deemed legitimate by international monitors, Morales has clearly validated his continuing mandate, earning a greater percentage than ever witnessed in a Bolivian vote during the Aug. 10 referendum. The opposition’s attempt to steamroll the government with the departmental results, which demonstrated the support of local autonomy initiatives, provides yet another example of it playing fast and loose with Bolivian democracy.

Morales, on the other hand, urges dialogue and is open to altering the draft constitution to include more self-rule for the wealthy departments of the Media Luna. Furthermore, his government has strongly rejected offers of military intervention made by his close ally Hugo Chávez.

U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia Philip Goldberg insists that he did not, as charged, engage in meetings with the Bolivian opposition. Even if this is true, his expulsion from the country demonstrates that he failed to be helpful. Above all, he should have worked closely with Morales to energetically support the democratically elected government in its efforts to preserve Bolivia’s unity.

Prophetically, it was UNASUR, a pubescent multilateral organization that responded to the situation far more muscularly than Washington. At its Sept. 15 meeting, nine Latin American heads of state agreed to determinedly support Morales and reiterated that they were at his disposal to facilitate negotiation.

While it appears too late for this White House to roll back the present tide of anti-U.S. sentiment in the region, the next U.S. president must embrace the irreversible changes that have taken hold among our neighbors to the south. This new Latin America is a place where more left-leaning presidents have taken office in recent years through legitimate democratic mechanisms than ever before.

This Latin America is building strong and relevant autonomous regional organizations. This Latin America deserves our collegiality in its search to fully realize its potential.

Birns, a former defense researcher and strategist and member of the Institute for Strategic Studies in London, has been the director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs since its founding in 1975. Bryant is a research fellow at COHA. She has completed studies in international affairs at the Catholic University of Cordoba in Argentina and worked as a policy analyst at the Foundation for Security and Democracy Bogota, Colombia.

Online: The Council on Hemispheric Affairs at coha.org.

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